In a movie that deals with racial prejudice like 42, naturally the roles most people would want to play are the characters who overcome racism, like Jackie Robinson (portrayed by Chadwick Boseman) and Branch Rickey (portrayed by Harrison Ford). But there has to be an actor willing to portray the deeply racist individuals who put up the barriers that the hero has to tear down. In 42, Alan Tudyk portrays Ben Chapman, the late 1940s manager of the Philadelphia Phillies who strongly opposed Jackie Robinson, the first African-American in the major leagues, on the basis of his race.
He spoke to Hollywood & Fine about how he managed to pull off a character so despicable by modern standards.
Tudyk admits that delivering the lines made him uncomfortable, and the feeling stuck with him like a bad hangover. He describes it as, “It was like I got wasted at a bad party. It would leave a stain on your mood, and put you into a bad mood into the next day.” One obstacle he faced in his performance was overcoming his own views with those filled with hate. He says, “It was hard to get past my own feelings. I had to get past that actor feeling of being someone sensitive and liberal, who’s not used to fighting.”
To give himself a rougher outlook, Tudyk explains that he would watch internet videos of street fights. He says, “But not those cage matches, where they both want to be there. The ones where someone is caught up in a fight he doesn’t want to be in, where he’s kind of saying, ‘Help me,’ and nobody does. I’d watch four or five of those and, when I stopped flinching and I had a knot in my stomach, I knew I was good to go. I had a good store of aggression and anger that I could take to work.”
Tudyk points out that it would have been a lot easier if he portrayed Chapman as a bigot caricature, but he knew that there was much more to the character. He explains, “Ben Chapman was like a lot of good ol’ boys I’ve met. He’s nice and funny – and then he tells a joke that’s extraordinarily racist and you think, ‘Oh no, I’ve got to go.’ I love the idea of him being somebody who could be likable. There were people who liked him.”
In fact, in doing research on Chapman Tudyk discovered that he wasn’t just racist towards blacks, he was racists towards everyone — and it was mostly in the name of getting under the skin of his competition. He reveals, “He would say, ‘Well, I’m an equal opportunity racist. I call Joe DiMaggio a wop and Hank Greenberg a kike. It’s all in good fun.’ He’d argue that, hey, this is a serious game and we’re playing for keeps so we’ll do what it takes to win. But at the same time, he’d say, hey, we’re just having some fun. There was a twisted logic there I could make sense of.”